Black free dive instructor turns tide on apartheid history

Free diver Zandile Ndlovu demonstrating to a group of township youngsters.
Free diver Zandile Ndlovu demonstrating to a group of township youngsters.
Image: MIKE HUTCHINGS

Five youths from Cape Town's Langa township squeeze into wetsuits for a snorkelling lesson with SA's first Black diving coach — turning the tide on decades of apartheid history in which water sports were reserved for wealthy whites.

Zandile Ndlovu's Black Mermaid Foundation aims to introduce the ocean to the country's black youth, millions of whom live in impoverished shanty townships, where beach trips are a luxury and swimming skills in short supply.

Sitting around Ndlovu, 33, SA's first Black — and Black female — free dive instructor, the children learn how to bite down onto the snorkel mouthpiece when breathing face down in the water, among other skills.

Established in 2020, the Foundation currently pays for the lessons but is looking for funders to ensure its longevity.

Free diver Zandile Ndlovu adjusts the mask of a youngster as they prepare to explore the marine world off Simonstown.
Free diver Zandile Ndlovu adjusts the mask of a youngster as they prepare to explore the marine world off Simonstown.
Image: MIKE HUTCHINGS

“The water space has not always been diverse, and I wanted to create a space where diverse representation in the ocean is possible,” she said. Ndlovu gave up her own consultancy business which she ran for five years after being employed in the corporate services sector.

“My joy is the moment when one of the children says, ‘Oh look it’s a fish, oh look it’s a starfish,’ because it means that they have transcended the fear to actually look beneath the surface,” Ndlovu added. She was speaking after a lesson in which students entered shallow waters behind a flotation ring in the placid but icy Atlantic Ocean off Cape Town's Long Beach.

Before SA's first democratic vote in 1994 ended white-minority rule, a myriad of apartheid laws legalised racial segregation across all facets of life. Public spaces, such as bathrooms and beaches, were reserved for whites only.

“I'm happy and I enjoyed it,” said Somila Tise, a 12-year-old grade six student from Langa as she emerged shivering from the water.

Trying snorkelling while on holiday to Bali in 2016, Ndlovu fell in love with the ocean. She swiftly got her scuba diving certificate the following year. Last year, she received an instructor's certificate in 'free diving', with no equipment. 

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